Want to avoid impact-washing accusations? Be clear!

Gloved hand with sponge and running water to illustrate impact washing
The following four pointers will help you identify and avoid impact washing accusations.

Savvy communicators know that vague language makes bad PR and marketing—if people can’t understand what you’re saying, how can they understand how great your products or services are? The same is true for ambitious yet unsubstantiated phrasing that paints your brand as flawless. When you’re promoting sustainability, these tendencies can make you look like an impact washer.

Consumers care about brands’ impact on environmental and social sustainability issues, from climate and pollution to living wages and support for minority groups. New research from Sustainable Brands shows that enhanced sustainability is a key driver of brand trust and that 78% of U.S. consumers say they make purchasing decisions based on brands’ sustainability efforts. In this context, impact-washing accusations can harm your credibility and bottom line.

The following five pointers will help you identify and avoid red flags.

1: Act first, talk later.

If you’re going to promote your impact efforts, make sure they’re backed up by actions worth talking about. A company that boasts about an initiative to reforest regions where it sources raw materials, for example, but hasn’t yet taken steps to do so opens itself up to charges of impact washing.

Consider the true scale of your actions. How meaningful are your efforts in the context of your business? Sometimes even well-meaning companies slip into promoting their ambitions rather than their accomplishments. By acting first and talking later, you won’t get precipitously out in front with your marketing and you can be sure your actions are aligned with your words.

2: Keep it simple.

Brevity and clarity will help your messaging land by cutting through clutter and noise. Audiences respond to language they can understand and relate to. Communications rife with jargon and fluffy statements, on the other hand, make it hard for people to determine what your impact is.

Remember: You are not your target audience and most people are not familiar with your professional jargon. Avoid falling into the overreach trap by testing your messaging with people who know nothing about the topic.

3: Be accurate.

Trust is easy to lose and hard to regain, and it rests on accuracy. That means not only sticking to the facts, but also avoiding cherry-picked information that creates a false impression. If your product tests show that your widget can reduce carbon emissions by 20% under specific circumstances but you fail to mention what those are, or you only highlight the percentage, you will lose credibility.

Even one or two slip-ups can cast a pall of doubt over your business. Inaccuracy will be perceived by many as lying or manipulation and can cause you to lose trust among key audiences. The remedy for this is to fact-check obsessively and avoid smoke and mirrors.

4: Acknowledge challenges.

It’s easy to get so caught up in your mission to improve the world that you lose sight of the need to acknowledge challenges in meeting some impact goals. Brands whose approach is to “fake it till you make it,” will be accused of impact washing.

On the other hand, brands that focus on verifiable progress—even if it’s not as great they’d like—while explaining the roadblocks and potential paths forward will gain goodwill and understanding. Audiences will appreciate the transparency and place more trust in your impact claims.

5: Stay the course.

If positive impact is core to your brand, be prepared to defend that position. Folding under pressure from interest groups that don’t agree with your actions can alienate employees, customers and the public, causing greater and longer-term harm than standing your ground. Two brands that recently appeared to waver on longstanding support for the LGBTQIA2+ community—Starbucks and Target—are feeling the fallout after their reversals.

Brands that boldly hold the line on their values build long-term trust while those that fold when it’s politically convenient decrease brand value.

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